Bringing New Zealand’s Cute Kakapo Back From the Brink of Extinction

Once abundant throughout New Zealand, recovery programs have boosted the population of this rare bird.

Jun 21, 2021
Bringing New Zealand’s Cute Kakapo Back From the Brink of Extinction | Once abundant throughout New Zealand, recovery programs have boosted the population of this rare bird.

If you saw a kakapo and thought this unusual New Zealand parrot was actually an owl, you wouldn’t be the only one. This large, nocturnal bird has a prominent facial disc of fine feathers, like an owl, and is sometimes called an owl parrot. As well as some cute, quirky habits, there are many stories celebrating the kakapo’s friendliness to humans. Today, these previously near-extinct birds are slowly making a comeback, thanks to dedicated local conservationists.

So what happened to almost make them history?

National treasure with an interesting backstory
Once, kakapo were a common sight throughout New Zealand. Early Maori and European settlers often adopted these naturally friendly birds as pets! Many kakapo enjoy interacting with humans as they are curious birds that are bursting with personality. Even wild kakapo are known to approach and climb on people! Here’s one curious kakapo with a local conservationist (more on their work below).

George Edward Grey, the English ornithologist, who first described the birds in 1845, as reported in this video, wrote that his pet kakapo’s behavior towards him and his friends was more like that of a dog than a bird! 

But the arrival of settlers changed the status quo. First early Maori settlers, and then others from  Europe cleared large swathes of their natural habitat and hunted kakapos for food and clothing.

In addition, the non-native mammalian predators they brought with them including cats and dogs, made matters worse. Unfortunately for the kakapo, who freeze when frightened, these non-native mammals don’t hunt by sight like the country’s native predators do, but by smell. This meant that stillness, and the camouflage of the kakapo’s forest-identical coloring no longer protected these flightless parrots from these non-native predators.

And the Kakapo’s distinctive musky aroma, a smell emitted from a preening wax, didn’t help them either. Biologist Jim Briskie told National Geographic, that this “musty violin case” aroma only intensifies during their breeding season, making them more vulnerable still.

All these factors led to these treasured local birds becoming critically endangered. They disappeared from the North Island by about 1930, but persisted longer in the wetter parts of the South Island. A small population of kakapos was discovered on the country’s smallest island, Stewart Island, in 1977, but this population was also declining due to cat predation.

By 1995, only 51 birds were known to exist. It was then that the Department of Conservation implemented the Kakapo Recovery programme to restore the population. Scientists, rangers, volunteers and donors teamed up to protect them.

The few remaining birds were collected and placed on five off-shore, predator-free islands that are safeguarded against invasive species. In 2020, conservationists were proud to announce a more than four-fold increase in the number of kakapos.

Quirky parrots with endearing characteristics
These are truly one of a kind creatures! Ground-dwelling, nocturnal birds, they are the world’s heaviest living parrots, weighing up to almost nice pounds. They forage on the ground for leaves, roots, bark and seeds and climb high into trees using their beak and claws. Kakapo have long lifespans, living an average of 60 years, but sometimes up to 90 years! Some theorize this this is due to their low energy expenditure.

They often leap from trees and flap their wings, but at best manage a controlled plummet that’s been compared to a parachute descent. Though flightless, their strong legs allow them to travel up to four miles a day. Their endearing movements when rushing have been compared to jogging!

And the mating habits of these beloved birds are unusual too. Kakapos breed every two to four years when rimu trees bear fruit, rich in vitamin D and calcium, and essential for laying eggs and growing chicks.

During mating season, male kakapo birds forge shallow holes in the ground, making deep booming calls and loud wheezing sounds to attract mates. Both sexes make a loud high pitched call called “skraaking”. 

A friend in dedicated local hero, Andrew Digby
As his Twitter bio explains, Dr. Andrew Digby is a local conservation biologist for endangered birds. He’s part of the Kakapo Recovery Programme, and has been working extensively with kakapo and takahe (another endangered local bird).

Digby and his team have been creatively optimizing the lives and breeding success of their beloved kakapos, all of whom they have named. This care takes in personalized smart feeders to manage their weight, and “smart eggs” to encourage kakapo females to generously feed chicks from incubated eggs.

Until kakapo numbers pick up more significantly, Dr. Digby and his team are securing radio transmitters to every living bird to monitor and better protect the 210 kakapo individuals spread across five islands from extinction.

As he tells CNN in our video: “Our ultimate goal is to return Kakapo to the mainland of New Zealand. So people in New Zealand near the cities can hear Kakapo booming like people used to hundreds of years ago.” 

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Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.